When I was twelve, a boy in my class asked me to look at my nails. I stretched my arm out, fingers spread, and glanced at the back of my hand. “Aha!” he announced, “That means you’re gay!” Evidently, the “straight” way to examine one’s cuticles was to curl one’s fingers over and look at them resting above the palm. It was a sophomoric stunt yet, on Tuesday, Greg Morse imbued this type of juvenile gender policing with eschatological significance in a feature for Desiring God, asking “Will Effeminacy Keep Anyone From Heaven?
The answer, according to Morse, is an unequivocal “yes.” Male effeminacy, to hear him tell it, “falls under the category of abomination and, if not repented of, threatens entrance into eternal life.” Effeminate men, he says, betray our God-given calling through a multitude of sins — ranging from speaking in a high voice, embodying a personal “softness,” or even by wearing skinny jeans and floral shirts. While it’s patently absurd to suggest these habits court eternal damnation, I’d go a step further — The ‘effeminacy’ Morse derides as abomination is actually men stepping towards the full humanity God wills for us, and for all.
Rigid gender performance is a cultural construct, not a divine decree. Truly, if we are created in the image of God, we are made to transgress narrow definitions of “masculine” and “feminine” behavior. The God of Scripture is neither male nor female, transcending human conceptions of gender altogether. Though frequently referred to with masculine pronouns, at other times God is described in the feminine, as a comforting mother (Isa 66:13) or a hen guarding her brood (Luke 13:34). As Patrick Cheng notes in Radical Love, “God is fundamentally queer,” breaking through any human attempt to restrict God’s gender expression — this is also why Morse’s attempt to lift Jesus up as masculine exemplar rings so hollow; if God and Jesus are one, then Jesus’ “maleness” is purely incidental.
If gender is merely a cultural construct, the question becomes, “Do traditional constructions of gender encourage behavior that aligns or deviates from the kind of life God would have us live?” For both men and women, the answer to this query is an emphatic “No.” For men in particular, “traditional” masculinity causes incredible suffering — for both men and those around us. There is a reason why the majority of mass shooters are men, and why 57 percent of those shooters have a history of domestic violence. It’s the same reason why men commit more than 90 percent of sexual assaults. For too long, we have taught men a sense of gross entitlement, shunned male emotion, laughed off boyhood violence, and absolved our abuses. “Effeminacy” describes a rejection of toxic masculine behavior, but it ought to be seen as repentance for patriarchal sins.
And this is precisely why articles like Morse’s are so dangerous. We are witnessing dynamic change in public understanding of gender roles; more and more men are rejecting limiting and damaging prescriptions for our gender. We are charting new understanding of what it means to be a man in ways that will hopefully shape the next generation of boys to be more loving, emotionally honest, soft and gentle, and to see those qualities as a sign of strength, not weakness.
At the same time, this movement has met vehement backlash from men standing athwart progress. It’s no coincidence that, as more men and women condemn patriarchal abuses, others have doubled-down on the most toxic elements of traditional masculinity.
This has been one of the undeniable facets of the Trump presidency. Beyond his own history of sexual violence — and the appointment of men like Brett Kavanaugh — pro-Trump memes like this one depict an elision of masculinity and violence to an absurd degree. In such a climate, Morse’s article does more than demonize effeminate men, it tacitly blesses a vision of masculinity that has long hurt women, and men who don’t perform our masculinity “appropriately.” This is particularly true given the article’s theological framing; it’s just one more iteration of patriarchal God-talk that encourages men to see only ourselves as divine. After all, in the words of Mary Daly, “If God is male, then the male is God.”
In the end, however, Morse tells on himself, and reveals why he feels so acutely threatened by effeminate men: he views our behavior as a slippery slope towards homosexuality. Anti-queer animus is the article’s beating heart, the decryption that untangles its otherwise tortured logic. Obviously, effeminate behavior is not what makes someone queer — although it has long been a staple within the gay community — but Morse’s zeal to distance himself from the objects of his bigotry requires the construction of mile-high walls around his masculine identity, lest even skinny jeans slip through.
In his retreat from his LGBTQ siblings, however, Morse also separates himself further from the deep life for which we were all created. Jesus, the embodiment of full humanity, lived in ways that transgressed the ancient world’s cultural boundaries, and invites us to follow. Jesus’ ministry cannot be contained within our conceptions of masculinity and femininity. His overturning the tables in the temple rejects the passivity that we have expected from women for too long just as surely as his radical nonviolence during his arrest subverts traditional masculine tropes. The idea that Christ would warn men away from “the sin of softness” is laughable.
For men, God’s message is clear — act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8) Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. ( Colossians 3:12) Love your neighbor as yourself. ( Matthew 22:39)
If this sounds like an invitation to effeminacy, it’s only because “masculinity” has strayed so deeply into sin.